What did Queen Victoria ever do for us? Well, in 1842, whilst in Scotland, the prim and diminutive monarch visited Rosslyn Chapel. By then the venerable chapel was a mouldering and vegetation-festooned shell that’d been degraded by 16th century Reformists and by Cromwell’s troops, hadn’t functioned as a place of worship for two centuries, and was mainly of note for providing inspiration to visiting artists and writers such as Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth. After seeing its interior, with its multitude of weird and wonderful carvings, the queen stamped her tiny foot and demanded that rather than have the building crumble into complete ruins, it should be preserved for the nation.
Although by the 1860s Rosslyn Chapel had been sufficiently repaired for church services to be held in it again, the restoration work has continued to the present. Sometimes that work has had to deal with the unintentionally-damaging effects of things done by earlier restorers – a layer of asphalt added to the roof in 1915 and protective coatings put on the stone carvings in the 1950s ultimately did more harm than good. In a bid to stop green algae forming on the stonework, which had become saturated with water, a giant umbrella-like canopy, supported by scaffolding, was erected over the chapel in 1997. The canopy was intended to shield it from rain, thus giving it a chance to completely dry out, and remained in place until 2010.
A few weeks ago I made my fifth visit to Rosslyn Chapel, which stands at the edge of Roslin village in Midlothian, about 15 miles up the road from my Dad’s farm. My previous four visits had all taken place while the building was still encased in scaffolding and still huddling under the wings of that huge canopy, so this was my first chance to properly see its exterior as well as its interior, around which I’ve traipsed so many times that the carvings inside have now taken on the air of old friends.
Here are a few photos I took of the chapel’s exterior – naked at last. A lot of the gargoyles, the external tracery on the windows and the outside carvings, statues and grotesques I hadn’t been able to see clearly before. It was also a new experience to view those ornate pinnacles atop the buttresses silhouetted against a (typically cloudy) Scottish sky.
In recent years the number of visitors to Rosslyn Chapel has skyrocketed thanks, I’m told, to it being used as a setting in a novel that was a huge bestseller around the world. That novel, of course, is Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness, published in 2000 and the eleventh of Rankin’s books about Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Lothians and Borders Police Force, who gets a tour of the chapel during the story. (Apparently, Rosslyn Chapel also featured in an obscure novel called The Da Vinci Code, written by some bloke the name of Dan Brown. You probably won’t have heard of it.) Indeed, it shocked me the other week when I entered the building and found it packed with people, mostly Italian tourists. There were four or five times as many sightseers present as there’d been during my previous visits, and it was a relief when one of the guides got most of them to sit down on the pews – which they entirely filled – and started giving them a lecture on the place’s history. That left the sides and aisle of the chapel a little freer for the other visitors, myself included, to move around and look at stuff.
Because of the surge in visitors, and the greater congestion, you’re no longer allowed to take photographs inside the chapel. However, here are a few pictures I took in previous years of the old favourites – the green man, the devil and lovers, the Apprentice Pillar and the creepy tied-up, upside-down angel who seems to be enacting part of a Masonic ritual.
In response to its increased popularity, the chapel has had a new visitor’s centre built in front of its perimeter wall. This contains exhibitions, a cafeteria and a gift shop, which among other things sells Rosslyn Chapel caps, Rosslyn Chapel jam, Rosslyn Chapel yoyos and Rosslyn Chapel books. Look – there at the end of the second-from-top bookshelf is that Da Vinci novel by Dan what’s-his-name. I wonder if it ever sells any copies?